While she thinks outside the box – quickly going far below the surface of an issue, making connections between ideas that no one else in the class makes, she is failing the course. Her papers are a consistent and beautiful disarray of provocative ideas, logical arguments, and bizarre twists and turns into intriguing explorations of tangential issues – completely fascinating yet unrelated to her thesis. I am sure she has learning disabilities; I know she has Attention Deficit Disorder and often tunes out – she might be hunting for some scrap of paper upon which she scribbled down a question she had to ask – but while she’s hunting for that bit of paper, we are on a totally different topic and she misses out on new information. She might be fishing through her large leather purse for a cough drop and a tissue for a classmate with a runny nose and cough, but while she’s doing that, we are working on sentence structure and she misses the review of the main principles of sentence focus.
I’m sure too that her distraction often leads her into trouble –because others (and I’ve caught myself doing this as well) misinterpret the distraction as willful disregard for the situation at hand. And I’m sure too that sometimes her mother doesn’t care that the distraction is caused by ADD – the cause of the behavior sometimes becomes irrelevant – it’s the outcome that matters. And at her age, she should have by now developed some compensatory skills to keep her on track. I know this because my son has ADHD and I reached that point with him – the point where you must learn how to manage your ailment – you must be responsible for mitigating the ill effects over which you actually do have some measure of control.
Yesterday, she arrived early to class (unheard of, she is usually late) wearing very large, dark sunglasses (also unusual), but I could see how puffy her face was underneath, she had been crying – and hard – and for some time.
She asked to speak with me in the hallway and out we went. She was trembling and tears rolled down her face in a steady stream. I’ve had students break down on me before, but never with this intensity. I couldn’t be a teacher any more. I could not maintain a safe distance (safe for me – if I take on every emotional crisis of every student, I would never survive – and I am not any student’s mother, aunt, sister, counselor, therapist, friend – I am their teacher and that is how I can best help them – by teaching them how to write, how to question, how to dig deeper). I immediately put my arms around her, patted her on the shoulder, held her tight, smoothed her hair, as if she were my baby girl. I held her like this for several minutes, until her trembling subsided and she could speak clearly. She was on her way to see a therapist on campus but wanted me to know why she wouldn’t be in class, why she didn’t have the essay due. Her life is falling apart – has been really for the whole semester – but the crisis has struck now. Her mother kicked her out of their studio apartment and she is unsure where she will go, where she will sleep. I’m sure that when she calms down, she’ll find a girlfriend willing to take her in. I resist the urge to offer her a port in this storm for the weekend. I cannot take in a student.
I calm her down, tell her that right now, I am not her teacher, just a concerned adult friend and we can save the discussion about her schoolwork for later – now is not the time – her crisis takes priority. I ask if she wants me to walk her to the counseling department but she shakes her head. I hug her one more time, brush the hair away from her forehead and kiss her as I would my own daughter – a breach in protocol with such profound ramifications that it scares me.